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Tema n.3:

Performing the Bodies of King Lear

Fictional characters may break the laws of the land with complete abandon. In the first scene of King Lear, the title character gives away land and power that are not his to give, and in so doing he separates his body politic from his body natural, thereby indulging in a freedom that was not available to King James I. King James himself had alluded to the theory of the king's two bodies in his first speech to Parliament, [1] and as he watched King Lear at Whitehall in 1606, he did so with the culturally constructed belief that the body politic and the body natural of a king are indivisible.

The theory of the king's two bodies appears often in the jurisprudence, the iconography, and the drama of Tudor and Stuart England. Although the significance of this theory to King Lear is evident from Lear's opening lines, the implications of being 'Twin-born with greatness' (Henry V 4.1.254) have received less scholarly attention in King Lear than in Henry V or Richard II. [2] As we consider the history of King Lear in performance, however, the theory of the king's two bodies provides a focusing lens through which we can see significant cultural shifts in attitudes toward both kingship and the human body.

The relationship between the body politic and the body natural may seem to be a simple dichotomy equated with dichotomies such as the head and the heart, or the public and private parts of one's life. But, of course, none of these pairings is simple; the head does not exist discrete from the heart, and our public and private selves are interconnected. In a similar way, a monarch's bodies are inseparable and the precise relationship between the two varies, for the body politic and the body natural are not fixed realities but social constructs that change with time and point of view. Just as 'what is called gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo', so too the bodies politic and natural are 'historical ideas' that gain their meaning 'through a concrete and historically mediated expression in the world'. [3]

Shifts in the historical ideas of the bodies politic and natural are evident in the stage history of King Lear. Productions have presented the conflict between Lear's bodies in a variety of ways, but in recent years there has been a marked movement away from emphasis on the body politic in performance and toward an emphasis on the body natural. In this paper I consider several factors that influence this shift in emphasis including fundamental changes that have taken place between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries in attitudes toward kings, in attitudes toward the human body, and in the medium through which Lear's body is presented. Since the role of Lear is performed by actors, whose instrument of artistry is the human body, I pay particular attention to the ways in which shifting attitudes to the body natural have influenced acting training, thereby indirectly affecting actors' approaches to the task of embodying a king. Finally, since the role of Lear is often played by famous actors whose celebrity status and filmed permanence gives them a kind of corporate perpetuity, I also consider the ways in which the concept of the king's body politic can and cannot be replaced by a new form of embodied power: the star's body famous.

The Theory of the King's Two Bodies

In The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Ernst H. Kantorowicz places the concept of the king's two bodies 'in its proper setting of medieval thought and political theory'. [4] He begins his analysis with reference to Edmund Plowden: a sixteenth-century lawyer whose Reports (1571) has been described as 'the chief Elizabethan source for the metaphor of the king's two bodies'. [5] Plowden writes:

For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, [...] So that [the King] has a Body natural, adorned and invested with the Estate and Dignity royal; and he has not a Body natural distinct and divided by itself from the Office and Dignity royal, but a Body natural and a Body politic together indivisible. [6]

Plowden's Reports was written as part of a legal controversy regarding a monarch's right to own land. Queen Elizabeth had asked for clarification regarding her right to lease the Duchy of Lancaster – a piece of land owned by the Lancastrian Kings as private property and not as property of the Crown. [7] According to Plowden and his fellow lawyers, a king (the monarch was always referred to as a King is these documents even though she was a Queen) [8] did not share a subject's freedom to own or dispose of property by giving it to his children in his will: the monarch could not own land in his body natural because his body natural was indivisible from his body politic, and the body politic never died. At the 'demise' of a king's body natural, the body politic migrated to the body natural of the succeeding king. Lawyers used the metaphor of the king's two bodies in order to deal with the paradox that individual monarchs died but the crown survived. As Marie Axton explains, 'the lawyers were formulating an idea of the state as a perpetual corporation' and when they spoke of the body politic 'they referred to a specific quality: the essence of corporate perpetuity'. [9]

In referring to both this 'metaphysical' concept of the king's two bodies and to the older 'collective' metaphor of the realm as a political body with the king as its head, Plowden and his fellow lawyers combined two distinct but related medieval theories of monarchy, and thereby facilitated a distinction between the king who 'was the realm and so above the law' and the king who 'was a subject under the law'. [10] Both of these concepts of the body politic were current in the early seventeenth century. While succession anxieties brought on by Elizabeth's advancing age led to an emphasis on the state as a perpetual corporation, the ambitions of James I to unify England and Scotland brought numerous allusions to Britain as a single body with James as its head.

The Two Bodies of King Lear

Jacobean audience members may well have noticed the direct relevance of the theory of the king's two bodies to King Lear. In the first scene of the play, Lear does an unthinkable, impossible thing: he gives away a kingdom that is not his to give, and thus 'creates a self-division, a split between the body natural and body politic, that leads to his madness', but, as R.A. Foakes explains, 'it is in his madness that, ironically, he realizes that he is still the king he always was, 'every inch a king.' [...] Once a king, always a king; this is what the play is about'. [11]

In the story of a powerful king who becomes a homeless wanderer there are ample opportunities to reflect on the nature of the relationship between the two bodies of a king. In the opening scene his 'most royal majesty' (1.1.194) exercises the muscles of his body politic as he delegates responsibilities and banishes offenders. Later he experiences the vulnerabilities of his body natural as he endures the cold, poverty and madness to which 'unaccommodated man' (3.4.105) is susceptible. In the last act, we see a more balanced union of Lear's two bodies as the respected king acknowledges his frailties.

The shifting emphasis between Lear's body politic and body natural is evident not only in the events of the play but also in the play's language. The specific titles used by various characters to refer to Lear reveal whether or not those characters still regard Lear as the embodiment of the body politic. Goneril refers to Lear as father and later as 'idle old man' (1.3.17) but never as King, and her servant Oswald perpetuates her 'weary negligence' (1.3.13) by referring to Lear as his 'lady's father' (1.4.77). Albany, on the other hand, fully acknowledges Lear's unalterable status as king when he resigns 'During the life of this old majesty/ To him our absolute power' (5.3.297-8). While Gloucester refers to Lear as the King throughout the play, he is temporarily blind in his allegiance just as he is blind in the judging of his sons. In act two he refers to Cornwall as 'The noble Duke, my master,/ My worthy arch and patron' (2.1.58-9), but on realizing how unworthy Cornwall is of such loyalty, he takes sides against Cornwall saying, 'the King my old master must be relieved' (3.3.18). He acknowledges that Lear embodies the body politic when he refers to Lear's 'anointed flesh' (3.7.57) and again in a later exchange that perfectly presents the twinned body of King Lear:

Gloucester: O, let me kiss that hand!
Lear: Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality. (4.6.129-30)

Albany and Gloucester's allegiance intensifies as the play progresses, but Kent's is unshakable from the start. In the first scene he expresses both his reverence for the body politic and his recognition of the body natural in Lear:

Royal Lear,
Whom I have ever honoured as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master followed [...] (1.1.140-2)

Lear interrupts him with a threat, to which Kent responds:

[...] What wouldst thou do, old man?
Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness [honour's bound
When majesty falls to folly. (1.1.147-52)

Kent advises Lear as man to remember the responsibilities of Lear as King. His advice is compatible with that given by Edward Forset, the Lord Chief Justice of London at the beginning of James I's reign, in his 1606 treatise A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique. Forset explains that a king who acknowledges the limitations of his body natural will be better prepared to bear the responsibilities of his body politic:

[...]sith it will not be gainsaid, but that Soueraignes through their naturall frailties, are subject as well to the imbecillitie of iugdement, as also to sensuall and irrationall mocions, rising out of the infectious mudd of flesh and bloud, . . . How both prudently and louingly do those Soueraignes gouerne, who . . . [do] assemble for consultation and consent, a full assistance of the noblest and choicest aduisours that the State affourdeth: thereby drawing supplies out of their politicall bodie, to make good what wanteth in their natural? [12]

Kent shows his allegiance by bravely advising the wayward King, and Lear rejects the advice 'Which nor [his] nature, nor [his] place can bear (1.1.172)'.

The Stage History of King Lear

The play's stage history reveals a general movement away from an emphasis on Lear's body politic and toward an emphasis on his body natural, but within this trend there have been numerous variations and exceptions. Directors who wish to emphasize Lear's role as king have ample opportunity in the ceremony of the play's first scene. A sennet marks the arrival of the King. He enters accompanied by attendants, and is greeted as 'Royal Lear'(1.1.140) and 'Most royal majesty' (1.1.194). The costumes, staging, music, and behaviour of Lear in this scene reveal a director's attitudes towards Lear's 'Estate and Dignity royal.' Foakes describes the essential differences in the staging of this scene over time:

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century productions Lear was discovered sitting on a throne, or he entered and ascended a chair of state in regal pomp. This sense of pomp, royal robes, and all the addition of a king, has in recent times been abandoned. . . . many modern productions . . . have shown us from the start an old pensioner with nothing royal about him, white-haired, rather decrepit, fitter to play shuffleboard than to rule a kingdom, losing the last shreds of his uncertain dignity in the opening scene. [13]

Clearly all eighteenth- and many nineteenth- century productions were based on Nahum Tate's version of the play. Nahum Tate rewrote the play in 1681, and for 150 years it was his version rather than Shakespeare's that was performed on the British stage. At two of Lear's most vulnerable moments Tate inserts reminders of Lear's status as rightful King, thereby encouraging an emphasis on the body politic. In act 3 scene 2, just after Lear has made his first appearance in the storm, Tate adds an exchange between Gloster and the Bastard in which Gloster says:

This change in the State sits uneasie. The [Commons
Repine aloud at their female Tyrants,
Already they Cry out for the re-installment
Of their good old King, whose Injuries
I fear will inflame 'em into Mutiny. [14]

Near the end of Tate's version, Lear expresses to Kent his joy at the thought of being restored to the throne:

Why I have News that will recall thy Youth;
Ha! Didst Thou hear't, or did th'inspiring Gods
Whisper to me Alone? Old Lear shall be
A King again. (5.6.104-7)

Thomas Davies records the impression created by these lines when Lear, in the seemingly frail body natural of David Garrick, contemplated being reinvested with the Dignity Royal. In reference to the final scene, which begins with 'LEAR asleep, with his Head on CORDELIA'S Lap,' Davies writes:

The half breathing and panting of Garrick, with a look and action which confessed the infirmity of old age, greatly heightened the picture. . . . Who could possibly think of depriving an audience, almost exhausted with the feelings of so many terrible scenes, of the inexpressible delight which they enjoyed, when the old King, in rapture, cried out -- 'Old Lear shall be a king again!' [15]

Accounts of Garrick's performances as Lear reveal that his much celebrated 'natural' style of acting sometimes pushed the limits of what was considered appropriate kingly behaviour. In 1747, Foote criticized Garrick's performance of Lear's madness stating that Lear's every action 'should express an Extravagance of State & Majesty. . . . but no Sign of Equality, no Familiarity, no sitting down Cheek by Jowl'; a few years later, however, John Shebbeare described Garrick's performance in the same scene when he wrote: 'The king is never one moment forgotten: it is royalty in lunacy'. [16] Accounts of Garrick's performances of Lear suggest he explored the tension between Lear's body natural and body politic much more thoroughly than older actors, such as Quin, had done. It seems the older actors attempted to personify the body politic through rant and bombast and considered it indecorous for a king to explore too fully the nature of nothingness.

The emphasis on the body politic in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century productions was encouraged not only by reverence for kings (who were sometimes in the audience) but also by the huge theatres in which the productions were housed: theatres that required booming voices, large and stylized gestures, and elaborate staging. The bombastic style of nineteenth-century Lears is recorded on film in Edwin Thanhouser's 1916 film starring Frederick Warde. Described as 'an old-fashioned, ranting performer,' Warde was 'the very incarnation of the noblest and most monarchial-looking of kings [...] In his regal appearance Warde embodied every nineteenth-century Bardolator's ideal of an authentic Shakespearian actor'. [17] Even in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century productions, however, there are clear signs that Lear's frailties were explored: Kemble and Irving made Lear 'somewhat decrepit or palsied' while Ludwig max Devrient 'went for frailty and pathos rather than grandeur' and entered 'leaning on a crutch'. [18] Edwin Booth showed Lear 'incipiently mad at the rise of the curtain, dimly and agonizingly aware of his deterioration'. [19] Productions which presented Lear as 'a grand figure of regal authority,' such as those starring Edwin Forrest or, years later, John Gielgud, tended to associate those kingly figures with 'a remote past'. [20]

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Lear as a 'magnificent portent' (Granville-Barker) is Lear as 'a stupid old fart' (Sir Laurence Olivier). [21] Choosing to anatomize 'the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age' instead of 'the Estate and Dignity Royal,' many recent productions have greatly diminished the tension between the king's two bodies that exists in the play and focused almost entirely on Lear's body natural. Michael Hordern, who played Lear in the1982 BBC television version under the direction of Jonathan Miller, is not easily identifiable as the King in the first scene, for he enters without ceremony, without crown or regal costume, and with his back to the camera. Hordern himself had mixed feelings about the lack of ceremony: 'I find it difficult to wear a crown, metaphorically speaking. . . so I was happy to go along with a rather more domestic opening to the play, which is wrong, I think'. [22]

The Royal National Theatre's production of King Lear in 1990, opened with Brian Cox's Lear being 'swung round the stage on a wheelchair, coming in on a high, laughing and slightly hysterical [which]. . . did indeed show the instability and lack of dignity and judgement in Lear'. [23] For the first half of the play he carried the crown around in a bag, and Cox's description of his costume in act 4 scene 6 shows just how far an emphasis on Lear's body natural can go:

I dirtied the costume down for the Dover sequence because Deborah [Warner] thought it wasn't pitiful enough, too pristine -- so I tore the sleeve [...] my clothes must be more urine and shit stained, with much more of a sense of Lear's incontinence'. [24]

In staging King Lear, and later in filming it, Peter Brook believed that with this complex play, 'the basic principle has to be economy'. [25] While he eliminated all details he regarded as unnecessary, he maintained that Lear has to have a robe: 'Even if you take everything else away from him, he has to enter with something that covers his legs for a certain regality of the character to appear'. [26] After a letter from an audience member who commented on Cox's bare legs, Cox decided to add a piece to his costume, and covered his legs with long underwear: probably not the sort of leg covering that Brook had in mind. [27]

While some productions privilege either the body politic or the body natural, and thereby risk losing the essential tension between the two in the play, others emphasize the burdensome coexistence of Lear's human frailties and his untransferable status as king. In his 1982 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Adrian Noble combined medieval attitudes towards the body politic with modern attitudes towards the body natural by telescoping time. The play began in a setting of medieval magnificence. Alexander Leggatt describes the effects of this production's movement through time:

[In the opening scene] the King's entrance, through the central door, was marked by a long, bold fanfare of trumpets, drums and cymbals -- even at one point a choir. When he appeared everyone knelt [...] Michael Gambon, who played Lear, was large and solidly built, an imposing presence [...] [the costumes] belonged to an old world [...] As Lear's world broke apart, chronology broke apart with it, as though time itself were being scrambled [...] as though we were moving with unnatural speed from the ordered traditions of the past to the broken world we live in now. In his later scene with Cordelia Lear was dressed not in the traditional long robe but in pyjamas, with a blanket wrapped around him. [28]

The specific time period of the action in King Lear is notoriously convoluted. The historical figure of King Leir ruled Britian c.800 BC making Gloucester's reference to Lear's 'anointed flesh' (3.7.58) anachronistic since anointing kings with holy oil at their coronation did not begin until the Middle Ages. [29] The play contains both Christian allusions and references to pagan gods, and while the story is hundreds of years old, Shakespeare's version contains references to recent events such as the 'late eclipses in the sun and moon' (1.2.100). Noble combined periods which were centuries apart – just as Shakespeare had done – and as a result, he managed to present Lear as both 'majestic ancient' and as a reflection of contemporary kingship.

Grigori Kozintsev located the play's shift in time not within the details of period setting but within the corridors of Lear's mind: according to Kozintsev, 'Lear [...] is a living anachronism, a man belonging to the past century. This is how he is at the beginning of the play. Later he is a different man, nearer to our times'. [30] Kozintsev's 1970 film of King Lear highlights the play's movement not away from kingship but away from what is fictitious, or theatrical: 'The play begins with the theatrical – fine dress, pretence, props (the map, coats of arms) contrived speeches and assumed poses. The end of the play has stepped into the real world, on to the dirty blood-soaked earth'. [31] While the first scene provides an opportunity to present Lear as an embodiment of the Estate and Dignity Royal, such a presentation must somehow take into account the scene's essential irony. Lear is a lesser man and monarch when he has everything than he is when he has nothing:

[Lear's] suffering makes him one with the many. He achieves greatness through his understanding of this fact. When he thought himself greater than most, he was then most ordinary. The whims of tyrants are not rare in the history of nations. There has never yet been a despot in the history of the world who has been able to admit the absurdity of his own deification. [32]

In Lear's first scene, Kozintsev clearly distinguishes between the body politic and body natural of Lear: while a herald reads the King's pronouncements, Lear sits quietly by a huge fireplace warming his hands. He gathers his family around the fire in a scene designed to be 'just as simple as the sentence from the folk tale: 'Once upon a time there lived a king who had three daughters''. [33] As his anger mounts, first at Cordelia and then at Kent, Lear masks the vulnerabilities of his body natural behind the rituals of his body politic. The shift from man to king occurs in a single moment as he petulantly spits at Kent and then climbs up onto his throne to pronounce Kent's banishment. He exits in anger and climbs to the top of the castle walls to disown Cordelia while his subjects fall to the ground in allegiance. Lear walks briskly through his yards, pointing to the men, horses, dogs, and falcons that are to follow him. He leaves accompanied by a king's retinue. The lengthy train is an indication that the King himself is on the move, but within his carriage we see a tired old man fast asleep. While some of the opening scenes we have examined privilege one or the other of Lear's two bodies, Kozintsev manages an equipoise between the two.

Shifting Conceptions of the Body Politic and the Body Natural

From 1756 to 1904, Lear was typically costumed in ermine-trimmed scarlet robes throughout most of the play, but as Foakes has noted, 'Now that there are hardly any kings left in western society, and none who wield significant power, this way of playing Lear, with all the panoply of majesty, has gone, and with it, perhaps, an understanding of an important dimension of the action'. [34] In some recent productions and adaptations of the play, Lear is presented more as a boss than as a king. In a recent adaptation of the play entitled Hysterica, for example, the Lear figure was a very wealthy businesswoman who began the play by signing over her corporation to her sons. [35] Clearly something essential is lost in the translation, for a wealthy parent is not a monarch: Gloucester is not Lear. In a modern democracy, political power is shared, and thus 'the body politic' may seem to be a metaphor for all those in power. In a Renaissance monarchy, however, power was invested in the body of the anointed king, and the body politic could not be shared, divided, or given away. Although Queen Elizabeth II is God's anointed one, she is a figurehead rather than an absolute ruler, and the political power required by elected leaders to direct the people and manage the public weal is not ordained by God but bestowed and withdrawn by ballot. In the twenty-first century perhaps the Pope provides a better example of embodied power than the Queen, for his power within the Vatican State is divinely bestowed and absolute.

Just as attitudes towards the body politic have changed significantly over the years, so too have attitudes towards the body natural. With the advent of vaccines, antibiotics, and studies on the genetics of aging, the average life expectancy of humans has greatly increased since the seventeenth century, and so have expectations for good health. Lear's age may seem less remarkable to us than to a playwright who died at the age of fifty-two. Furthermore, in a post-Freudian age of x-rays and arthroscopic surgery, we now have a very different understanding of the workings of human bodies and emotions. In the words of W. B. Worthen,

It is hard to imagine that we can inhabit the body in ways even approximating those of Shakespeare's era. Although sight, pain, cold have probably not changed, our ways of understanding the body and of mapping it into the signifying web of culture are radically altered, and so the experience of the body has been altered as well. [36]

Jonathan Miller describes the view of man and nature in King Lear as 'almost Hobbesian' in its implication that the function of the authority of sovereigns, or of the body politic, is to control the brutish nature of mankind. [37] Control is good, and loss of control is inhuman. In The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting, Joseph R. Roach explains that the perceived virtues of top-down authority in the state can be used as a metaphor for the seventeenth-century perception of the body:

[in which there is] a kind of class hierarchy of corporeal substances, rising in refinement toward the head: the plebian humours, generally sluggish when properly kept down, become dangerous when they rise in revolt, while the animal spirits . . . try to run everything. The spirits act as ministers of the sovereign will, as physical extensions of the immaterial soul, which rules by divine right and looks forward to a transcendent existence beyond its earthly clay. Passions, however, cut across class lines. [38]

This sense of corporeal hierarchy accounts for the common metaphor of keeping passions 'down' or 'under' control. According to seventeenth-century medical opinion, failure to keep passions 'down' can result in a visceral disorder known as hysteria which 'drives the womb or entrails, the mother, upwards in the body, suffocating and poisoning the vital organs'. [39] It is just such a sensation that Lear expresses:

O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica Passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,
Thy element's below. (2.2.246-8)

The same concept is evident again in the Folio text as Lear says, 'O me, my heart! My rising heart! But down!' (2.2.310). In Tate's version, the feeling that Lear struggles to control is not hysteria but anger:

Oh! how this Spleen swells upward to my Heart
And heaves for passage – down thou climbing [Rage
Thy Element's below. (2.2.173-5)

In Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion, Lily B. Campbell examines King Lear within the context of the Renaissance discourse on anger. Reminding her reader 'that the Renaissance passion of anger had its medieval background in the deadly sin of wrath', [40] she cites numerous classical and Tudor texts that expound upon the moral and physical dangers of this particular passion. According the author of The French Academy (1594), when anger is allowed to rise uncontrolled, 'it leadeth a man even to furie and rage, and procureth unto him not onely manie diseases, but oftentimes death it selfe'; thus it is essential that 'the mynd [...] be reined by reason, and curbed by temperaunce'. [41] Again we see the perceived virtue of keeping anger 'under' control.

The Body Natural as an Actor's Instrument

Shakespeare creates Lear as a king struggling against the frailties and passions of his body natural. Since the body is 'the actor's instrument,' changes in attitudes toward the body natural have resulted in corresponding changes in the techniques of actor training and in the approaches actors have taken to the task of embodying Lear. Early actors who played the role brought to the part an acting technique predicated on stylized methods of control. In the context of seventeenth-century concepts of the passions, theatrical decorum should not be understood as 'a capricious etiquette imposed by some bloodless notion of style' but as 'a coherent physiological system designed to regulate the great natural forces of the body for artistic and hygienic effect', for if intense passion is believed to cause illness or madness, then some sort of control is required: 'an oratorical gesture, a prescribed pattern of action, serves as a pre-existing mold into which this molten passion can be poured'. [42] In The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting, Joseph R. Roach summarizes the essential difference between seventeenth- and twentieth-century attitudes toward the value of passion to the actor:

Our current views of acting seem to reverse the anxiety that seventeenth-century rhetoricians expressed with regard to the flow of the passions: instead of worrying about how to cap the gusher, as they did, modern actors wonder where to drill. Contemporary psychology has utterly transformed our image of the body. We believe that spontaneous feelings, if they can be located and identified, must be extracted with difficulty from beneath the layers of inhibition that time and habit have deposited over our natural selves, selves that lie repressed under the rigidifying sediment of stress, trauma, and shame [...] The goal at the end of a training program in acting today is natural expressiveness; its enemy is inhibition. [43]

The two styles of acting described here are generally referred to as 'external acting' and 'method acting,' or the 'organic approach'. [44] 'External acting', often associated with old styles of British training, emphasizes the development of character and of physical and vocal technique. It was designed, in part, to prepare actors for the demands of huge theatres in which actors performed without microphones. 'Internal acting', on the other hand, explores actors' inner emotional resources and grew out of American adaptations of Stanislavsky's work. It is best suited to realistic drama and to film work, in which extreme close-ups catch every nuance of emotion. These descriptions are clearly overly simplistic, as is the notion that the 'external' and 'internal' parts of an actor's work can be totally separated. While there has been a tendency to categorize twentieth-century acting theorists as 'internalists' or 'externalists' and thereby to perpetuate the Cartesian dualism that Diderot began, [45] most theorists recognize that in the best acting, the objective and subjective experience of a character's emotion must be combined.

The shift from 'external' to 'method' acting during the last four centuries is somewhat analogous to the shift in emphasis from the body politic to the body natural in the performance history of King Lear. In both cases the trend is clear, in both cases there are exceptions to the trend, and, most important, in both cases the ultimate goal is to combine the two parts of what must finally be recognized as a misleading dichotomy. As mentioned previously, a king's two bodies are indivisible. A monarch invested with the body politic can best perform his duties when cognizant of his body natural's vulnerabilities. Similarly, an actor with 'a warm heart and a cool mind' (Talma's definition of acting) [46] is best equipped to act with both feeling and consistency. As Diderot wrote in a letter a few years before he wrote The Paradox of Acting:

The actor who has nothing but reason and calculation is frigid. The one who has nothing but excitement and emotionalism is silly. What makes the human being of supreme excellence is a kind of balance between calculation and warmth. [47]

Over two hundred years later, in an article entitled 'Practicing the Paradox: Addressing the Creative State', Peter Lobdell notes that actors 'live actively in the center of a paradox – namely, they are at once the character and not the character. They must live simultaneously within the imaginary given circumstances of the play and on the actual stage – allowing both and denying neither'. [48] Similarly, kings assume a role that requires them to combine the objective and the subjective experiences of monarchy, for they embody the immortal body politic in a mortal body natural. Actors who embody the fictional character of King Lear, whether working from the outside in, or from the inside out, must also strive to live simultaneously within both of Lear's bodies.

From Stage to Screen

In exploring embodiment in King Lear, we must acknowledge another significant change in the last four centuries: the removal of the human body from some productions of the play. While stage productions bring the physical bodies of performers and audience members together, film and TV versions present the story in two dimensions. Each medium provides specific opportunities and limitations in presenting Lear's two bodies. Elaborate nineteenth-century productions, such as those staged by Charles Kean or the Meininger Company, display royal grandeur on an impressive scale, but films can take such display much further. A director wanting to emphasize Lear's majesty can provide castles, vast tracks of land, and a hundred riotous knights on horseback. In Kozintsev's opinion, however, 'The advantage of the cinema over the theatre is not that you can even have horses, but that you can stare closer into a man's eyes'. [49] His film contains many close-ups of Lear's face and eyes; indeed, it was Yuri Yarvet's eyes that first caught Kozintsev's attention. Kozintsev had auditioned many better known actors for the part of Lear. In October, 1968, he wrote: 'Today, after many difficult months, after so many unsuccessful tests, I have at last seen the eyes on the screen: the very eyes. [...] I looked at Yarvet and recognized Lear. Yarvet looked like him. [50] ' While Kozintsev often focuses attention on Lear's eyes, Peter Brook 'concentrates [...] inexorably on the faces of the characters, filling the whole screen with a face, desperately trying to understand what lies behind the look'. [51] These extreme close-ups draw our attention not only to the inscrutability of Lear's thoughts but also to the wrinkled mortality of an old man's natural body.

By removing the nightly need for the actor's physical body, films provide a venue for elderly actors to play the part. 'Ye laborious part of King Lear,' as Garrick once referred to it, is a ruthlessly demanding role which, ironically enough, becomes increasingly difficult to play with age. [52] As a result, it is frequently performed by surprisingly young actors: Garrick was only twenty-four when he first played the role, and John Gielgud only twenty-six. Brian Cox played the part at the age of forty-four and claimed he did not know 'how a man of a certain age' could play that part. [53] Olivier played the role for the first time in 1946, and he would have been unable to perform it in 1983 – ten years after he had retired from the stage – if not for the breaks provided by the intermittent nature of a shooting schedule. [54]

The Star's Body Famous

In closing, I would like to draw attention to another form of embodied power relevant to this play. While reading accounts of numerous productions of King Lear, I was struck by a phenomenon that occurred again and again throughout the play's performance history. Once or twice a century, an old and revered actor chooses to play Lear as his final performance, and in such circumstances, comparisons between the actor and the character are inevitable. When a celebrity chooses to give his last performance as King Lear, he is choosing to perform himself performing Lear, and thus the king's body politic is injected with the embodied power of a star's body famous. Critical responses to such performances combine an objective and subjective response to the embodied monarch.

While David Garrick's final performance was of Don Felix in The Wonder, his final performance in a Shakespearean role was as King Lear. On June 8, 1776, King Lear and Garrick, the king of the London stage, relinquished their kingdoms together. A reviewer for the London Chronicle described the response to Garrick's last performance of Lear when he wrote:

He never appeared so great in the character before [...] [The cursing of Goneril] caused a kind of momentary petrification thro' the house, which he soon dissolved universally into tears. Even the unfeeling Regan and Goneril forgetful of their characteristic cruelty, played through the whole of their parts with aching bosoms and streaming eyes. [55]

King Lear was widely regarded as Garrick's masterpiece. The strong association of the role with Garrick is evident in an anecdote reported by Thomas Davies: 'When this inimitable actor was buried, a person it is said, by desire of Mrs. Garrick, threw the play of Hamlet into the grave with the corpse. With equal, if not more propriety, Lear might have also been deposited there'. [56]

Edwin Forrest played King Lear as his last performance in New York. Although the performance was not well supported, Forrest made 'such a figure of ruined majesty' that one reviewer described him as 'the King Lear of the American stage [...] He gave to his children, the public, all that he had, and now they have deserted him' [57] . Forrest also compared himself to the aging King. In response to a compliment regarding how well he played Lear, he responded: 'Play Lear? . . . What do you mean, sir? I do not play Lear. I play Hamlet, Richard, Shylock, Virginius, if you please, but by God, sir, I am Lear!'. [58]

More recently, Sir Laurence Olivier has been associated with Lear. Olivier's final performance was as King Lear in Michael Elliott's 1983 TV version of the play, and the complete appropriateness of the man to the role is described by Kenneth Rothwell:

What could possibly be more self-referential, more 'meta-television', than the world's greatest actor playing himself as an aged monarch in the declining years of his career? More than that, the veteran supporting cast is virtually a real-life counterpart to the old king's hundred knights. From all accounts they also brought a Kent-like loyalty on the set to the aged monarch'. [59]

While other filmed versions are associated with their directors – 'Peter Brook's Lear', 'Kozintsev's Lear' – the 1983 version is not referred to as 'Elliott's' but as 'Olivier's Lear'. Such as name is appropriate to the director's focus, for the production avoids 'strong lines of directorial interpretation, leaving all its interest focused on Olivier's performance'. [60] In reviewing the production for Time, Richard Corliss wrote of Olivier's performance: 'each gesture can seem heroic, each line he utters a precious gift from the depleting stock of his time'. [61] When Larry Olivier arrived on set, he embodied the power of his own stardom: he was Sir Laurence Olivier, Baron Olivier of Brighton, performing himself as he prepared to embody Lear. Like other actors before him, Olivier also compared himself to King Lear:

[Lear's] just a selfish, irascible old bastard -- so am I [...] My family would agree with that: no wonder he's all right, they would say, he's just himself, he's got just that sort of ridiculous temper, those sulks. Absolutely mad as a hatter sometimes. . . When you're younger, Lear doesn't feel real. When you get to my age, you are Lear in every nerve of your body. [62]

The obvious similarities between an aging and temperamental actor and the declining king are dramatized in Peter Yates's 1983 film The Dresser. Albert Finney plays the role of 'Sir', an aging Shakespearean actor in whom Nature 'stands on the very verge/ Of her confine' (2.2.336). His final performance is as King Lear; indeed, it seems that the demands of the part kill him. In a break between scenes, a young actress comes to his room on an errand. She is clearly in awe of him and says: 'I love coming into your room. I can feel the power and the mystery. In days gone by, this would have been the place where the high priests robed.'

We may live in a world without kings, but it is not a world without wonder. The Renaissance notion of the body politic is no longer widely understood, but perhaps something akin to it can still be experienced, for as we look into Yuri Yarvet's eyes, or witness the final performance of Sir Laurence Olivier, we experience the force of embodied power and are filled with a sense of respect. They have in their countenances that which we would fain call master.


[1] Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession, (London, 1977), p. 133.

[2] For full-length studies of the theory of the king's two bodies in Tudor and Stuart England, see Kantorowitcz, Ernst H., The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton N.J., 1957); Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession; and, more recently, Albert Rolls, The Theory of the King's Two Bodies in the Age of Shakespeare, (Lewiston, 2000). For studies of the theory as it applies to Richard II and Henry V, see Kantorowicz pp.24-41; Philip Edwards, 'Person and Office in Shakespeare's Plays', in Interpretations of Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir (Oxford, 1985), pp. 105-23; and Rolls, pp. 97-148 and 187-250. The relevance of the theory to King Lear is explored in Axton, pp. 131-43; in R.A. Foakes' introduction to the Arden edition of the play (Surrey, 1997), pp. 17-9; and R.A. Foakes, 'King Lear: Monarch or Senior Citizen?', in Elizabethan Theater: Essays in Honor of S. Shoenbaum, ed. R.B. Parker and S.P. Zitner (Newark, 1996), pp. 271-289.

[3] Judith Butler, 'Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory', in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore, 1990), pp. 271-2.

[4] Ernst H. Kantorowitcz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, p. 6.

[5] Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession, p. 20.

[6] Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, pp.7-9.

[7] Ibid., p. 7.

[8] William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. R.A. Foakes, p. 17.

[9] Ibid., p. 12.

[10] Albert Rolls, The Theory of the King's Two Bodies in the Age of Shakespeare, pp. 57-59.

[11] Foakes, 'King Lear: Monarch or Senior Citizen?', p. 286.

[12] Edward Forset, A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique and A Defence of the Right of Kings (1606), Facsimile version (Farnborough, 1969), pp. 16-7.

[13] Ibid., p. 271.

[14] Nahum Tate, King Lear, in Shakespeare Made Fit: Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare, ed. Sandra Clark (Vermont, 1997), pp. 291-373.

[15] Thomas Davies, Dramatic Miscellanies (Dublin, 1784), p. 212.

[16] Brian Vickers, ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, vol. 3 (London, 1976), p. 214 and vol. 4 (London, 1976), p. 196. I examine Garrick's performance of King Lear more thoroughly in a paper entitled 'Beyond Bombast: David Garrick's Performances of Benedick and King Lear,' in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, vol. 15/1 (May 1999), pp. 1-22.

[17] Kenneth S. Rothwell, 'Representing King Lear on screen: from metatheatre to 'meta-cinema.'' in Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television, ed. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 212, 215.

[18] Foakes, 'King Lear: Monarch or Senior Citizen?', p. 272; Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear (Manchester, 1991), p. 2.

[19] Eleanor Ruggles, Prince of Players: Edwin Booth (New York, 1953), p. 252.

[20] Foakes, 'King Lear: Monarch or Senior Citizen?', p. 272.

[21] H. Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare: King Lear, in Shakespeare Criticism: 1919-35, ed. Anne Ridler (London, 1936), p. 130; Olivier as quoted in Leggatt, Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear, p. 127.

[22] Ibid., p. 116.

[23] Brian Cox, The Lear Diaries: The Story of the Royal National Theatre's Productions of Richard III and King Lear (London, 1992), p. 24.

[24] Ibid., p. 81.

[25] Peter Brook, The Shifting Point: Forty Years of Theatrical Exploration, 1946-1987 (London, 1987), p. 205.

[26] Ibid., p. 90.

[27] Cox, p. 85.

[28] Leggatt, Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear, pp. 68-9.

[29] Foakes, 'King Lear: Monarch or Senior Citizen?', p. 273.

[30] Kozintsev, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy (London, 1977), p. 43.

[31] Kozintsev as quoted by Peter Holland in 'Two-dimensional Shakespeare: King Lear on Film' in Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television, ed. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 1994), p. 55.

[32] Grigori Kozintsev, 'Hamlet and King Lear: Stage and Film' in Clifford Leech and J.M.R. Margeson, eds., Shakespeare 1971 (Toronto, 1972), p. 196.

[33] Kozintsev, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy, p. 120.

[34] William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. R.A. Foakes, p. 13.

[35] This production, by the theatre company Necessary Angel, premiered at Toronto's Canadian Stage Theatre in January, 2000.

[36] W.B. Worthen, Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance (Cambridge, 1997), p. 146.

[37] Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances (London, 1986), p.131.

[38] Joseph R. Roach, The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (Newark, 1985), p. 40.

[39] Ibid., p. 48.

[40] Lily B Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge, 1930), p. 176.

[41] Ibid., pp.180-1.

[42] Roach, The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting, pp. 54-55.

[43] Ibid., p. 218.

[44] Worthen, Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance, p. 100.

[45] Richard Hornby, The End of Acting: A Radical View (New York, 1922) p. 187.

[46] Talma's definition of acting as quoted in Lee Strasberg, A Dream of Passion: The Development of The Method (New York, 1987), p. 35.

[47] Ibid., p. 34.

[48] Peter Lobdell, 'Practicing the Paradox: Addressing the Creative State' in Method Acting Reconsidered: Theory, Practice, Future (New York, 2000) 180.

[49] Kozintsev, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy, p. 55.

[50] Ibid., pp. 75-76.

[51] Holland, 'Two-dimensional Shakespeare: King Lear on Film', p. 66.

[52] David Garrick, The Letters of David Garrick 2, ed. David M. Little and George M. Kahrl (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), p. 682.

[53] Cox, p. 69.

[54] Leggatt, Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear, p. 128.

[55] George Winchester Stone Jr., 'Garrick's Production of King Lear: A Study in the Temper of the Eighteenth-Century Mind.' in Studies in Philology 45 (Chapel Hill, 1948), p. 103.

[56] Davies, Dramatic Miscellanies, p. 212.

[57] Eleanor Ruggles, Prince of Players: Edwin Booth (New York, 1953), p. 238.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Rothwell, 'Representing King Lear on screen: from metatheatre to 'meta-cinema.'', p. 228.

[60] Holland, 'Two-dimensional Shakespeare: King Lear on Film', p. 60.

[61] Richard Corliss, Time, 16 May 1983, as quoted in Leggatt, , Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear, p. 128.

[62] Sir Laurence Olivier as quoted in Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear (Manchester, 1991), pp. 127-8
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